Review – The Church in the Darkness
A game in which you have to infiltrate a cult and dismantle it from the inside sounds like the perfect game for me. There is so much potential for great stealth gameplay, disguise mechanics, and world building. Does Fellow Traveller’s The Church in the Darkness live up to the expectation though?
Set in the 1970’s, a small town of US citizens have formed a group called “The Collective Justice Mission”, run by Isaac and Rebecca Walker. You play as Vic, who infiltrates the cult’s homeland of Freedom Town to look for your nephew, Alex, and bring him back home. What happens then is up to you in a non-linear narrative with multiple paths. You can bring Alex back home or make a difference for Freedom Town.
Despite the interesting set-up and the cult setting, I found it hard to care about any of the characters or the overarching plot. Though the actions you take do have an impact on the characters and overall ending, which was a nice touch.
Visually, there isn’t a lot to look at here. The game is played from an isometric point of view which highlights the visual problems much more. There’s an attempt to go for a minimalistic art style, but it just falls flat in the environment they have. Trees and foliage look especially bad, which is a problem since there’s so many of them.
Sound fairs a bit better, but it still has plenty of room for improvement. Whilst not perfect, the voice acting and overall sound design is at least competent at times and fits the theme incredibly well. Isaac and Rebecca Walker spreading their “words of wisdom” gives a realistic sense to the place, even though it does get annoying listening to them after a while.
When you spawn into the world in a random spot you will have an objective to meet one of several random NPC’s who will give you Alex’s location, but it’s up to you how to proceed. Ideally you want to scavenge around for ammo, supplies, and a more detailed version of the map that will highlight key locations and structures. There isn’t a lot of interesting or useful items, so I stopped looting everything the second I found a disguise and a map.
The Church in the Darkness is primarily a stealth game that feels more like an after thought as the mechanics are paper thin. After about ten minutes of planning my routes through the map, I discovered that the mechanics are easily abused. Simply running wide circles around the guard’s vision cones was enough to get by most of them. Others can be distracted by throwing a rock or walking slightly into their vision cones then running away. If you do happen to get caught, just run. They will forget about you by the time they leave the screen. To make matters worse for the stealth systems, there is little to no sound detection at all. Sprinting around doesn’t make a sound whilst shooting a shotgun only attracts guards that are close by and are easy to deal with.
There’s a Hitman vibe going through the game; you can kill guards and hide their bodies in containers. An incredibly simplistic disguise system misses a great opportunity for infiltration. Instead there is one disguise that simply reduces vision cones by a couple of meters. A helpful but underwhelming mechanic. The experience will last anywhere between thirty minutes and a couple of hours depending on how you play and what your objective is. If you do end up playing the game over a few playthroughs, you will realise that there are some neat rogue-like elements at play that makes each run feel different. New items, NPCs and side stories start opening up whilst their locations will be shifted around a bit. However it doesn’t change the experience in any significant way and only makes the game slightly more annoying when characters move.
Cult leader’s attitudes will also be shuffled around, putting the story and potential endings on different tracks. In one playthrough, Isaac (one of the leaders) could be forgiving and wanting to do good. Then in another session he may be beyond reasoning and must be stopped.
This also applies characters around the map. Alex’s loyalties and motivations change from playthrough to playthrough, whilst other important NPC’s can be impacted by your actions. Accidentally kill a civilian in plain sight? Their attitudes towards you will change and can lock you out of that story path. This is one thing that this game does well; it reacts to your actions and will impact the endings that you have. Whilst there is a total of nineteen endings, they aren’t satisfying as they all cut to black and end with flavour text. Plus you have to suffer the stealth gameplay a lot to see them all.
The Church in the Darkness could have been a great cult classic, but misses the mark completely. The ideas that it possesses are great and how the game reacts to your actions work surprisingly well. However, the core gameplay is ultimately what kills the experience.
The minimalist art style simply doesn’t look right. Low details, bad UI, and just ugly to look at.
A reactive world can’t make up for the overly simplistic stealth gameplay.
Passable sound design, but the constant spewing of propaganda on the loud speakers does getting irritating after a while.
Whilst the concept is brilliant, Church in the Darkness falls flat and isn’t much fun at all.
Final Verdict: 3.5
The Church in the Darkness is available now on PC, Xbox One, Switch and Playstation 4.
Reviewed on Xbox One.
A copy of The Church in the Darkness was provided by the publisher.